THE HAGUE // The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for working to eliminate the scourge that has haunted generations from the First World War to the battlefields of Syria.
By giving the peace award to the OPCW, the Nobel committee found a way to highlight the Syrian civil war without siding with any group involved in the conflict that has claimed more than 110,000 lives.
The organisation has largely worked out of the limelight since its formation 16 years ago but that changed when the United Nations called on its expertise to help investigate chemical weapons use in Syria.
“The conventions and the work of the OPCW have defined the use of chemical weapons as a taboo under international law,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in Oslo. “Recent events in Syria, where chemical weapons have again been put to use, have underlined the need to enhance the efforts to do away with such weapons.”
The US accused Bashar Al Assad’s forces of conducting the August sarin attack in Damascus that it said killed 1,400 people, including hundreds of children.
Facing the threat of a US strike, Mr Al Assad eventually agreed to destroy Syria’s sizeable chemical weapons programme and allow in OPCW inspectors.
“Events in Syria have been a tragic reminder that there remains much work still to be done,” the OPCW director general Ahmet Uzumcu said. “Our hearts go out to the Syrian people who were recently victims of the horror of chemical weapons.
“I truly hope that this award and the OPCW’s ongoing mission together with the United Nations in Syria will help efforts to achieve peace in that country and end the suffering of its people.”
He said the US$1.2 million (Dh4.4m) prize money would be used “for the goals of the convention”, to eliminate chemical weapons.
The Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, shot in the head a year ago by the Taliban, had been the bookmakers’ favourite to win the prize for her campaign for girls’ right to education.
The award came just days before Syria officially joins as the group’s 190th member state. OPCW inspectors are already on a high-risk mission in Damascus to verify and destroy the government’s 1,000-tonne arsenal of poison gas and nerve agents amid a raging civil war.
Thorbjoern Jagland, the Nobel Peace Prize committee chief, said the award was a reminder to nations such as the United States and Russia to eliminate their own large stockpiles, “especially because they are demanding that others do the same, like Syria”.
“We now have the opportunity to get rid of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction ... That would be a great event in history if we could achieve that,” he said.
Russia and the US hammered out the deal to allow the OPCW inspectors in to Syria after Russia seized on an offhand comment from John Kerry, the US secretary of state, who said the Assad regime could avert punitive military action from Washington if it gave up its chemical weapons. Before agreeing to the deal, Syria had never acknowledged that it had a stockpile of such weapons.
The reaction in Syria to the Nobel decision was polarised.
Louay Safi, a senior figure in Syria’s main opposition bloc, called the Nobel award “a premature step”.
“If this prize is seen as if the chemical weapons inspections in Syria will help foster peace in Syria and in the region, it’s a wrong perception,” he said.
Fayez Sayegh, an MP and member of Mr Al Assad’s ruling Baath party, said the award underscored “the credibility” of the Damascus government. He said Syria is “giving an example to countries that have chemical and nuclear weapons”.
The first OPCW inspection team arrived in Syria last week, followed by another team this week. They have already begun to oversee the first stages of destruction of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons.
The struggle to control chemical weapons began in earnest after the First World War, when agents such as mustard gas killed more than 100,000 people and injured a million more. The 1925 Geneva Convention prohibited the use of chemical weapons but their production or storage wasn’t outlawed until the Chemical Weapons Convention came into force in 1997.
“During World War Two, chemical means were employed in Hitler’s mass exterminations,” the prize committee said. “Chemical weapons have subsequently been put to use on numerous occasions by both states and terrorists.”
* Associated Press with additional reporting by Reuters